As a vice-principal, I often deal with students exhibiting challenging behaviour. Part of my responsibility when investigating what happened is to ask questions. The first question, as anyone would guess, is, “What happened?” The student then gives the run-down on whatever it was that led to him or her sitting in the office. And after a student would tell me what he or she did to land themselves in the office, what do you think I would ask next, inevitably? You guessed it – “Why did you do that?” And what do you think I would get as an answer? Either “I don’t know” or some sort of excuse that starts with “Because…” I ask you, does the reason why matter?
I stopped asking “Why?” when talking with kids about challenging behaviour. I found the answers I got to be pointless and unproductive to the discussion. Often kids, especially younger ones, don’t really know why they did what they did, because it could very well have simply been an impulsive or thoughtless act. Or, the question gives students the opportunity to dig for an excuse, which just goes to rationalize or justify their action. It stalls or even undermines the process of reflection and accepting responsibility that leads to the child understanding the impact their actions had on others. This understanding is the ultimate goal when working with students in conflict – helping them see how their actions have harmed a relationship with someone in their school community.
This is at the core of the restorative practices framework. The focus is on getting kids to talk and express how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, and to work together to find solutions to a problem. It’s quite a shift from the punitive approach that is still prevalent in many homes and schools where adults impose consequences on the child rather than supporting a child into taking responsibility.
The International Institute for Restorative Practices created a list of questions to ask when responding to challenging behaviour that eliminated the “why” and focused on the “what”:
1. What happened?
2. What were you thinking of at the time?
3. What have you thought about since?
4. Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?
5. What do you think you need to do to make things right?
I challenge you, whether you are a teacher, an administrator or a parent, to drop the “why” from the conversation when you’re dealing with a conflict between kids. What kinds of conversations are you having now?